At the beginning of this year, if you had told me I’d be meeting with corporate executives to encourage a movement of creating allies to combat bullying in America and traveling around the country, sharing intimate details of my life with thousands of teens, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Let me explain how this all started. Back in May of this year, I was on Facebook with my friends and I came across Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’ comments from the now famous Salon magazine article. Among the appalling comments, some really struck a chord with me.
"We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," he said. "A lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
As a person who has struggled with an eating disorder as well tried to commit suicide, because of the humiliation and degradation of being bullied, I did not want to let him get away with saying such hurtful comments that so obviously feed into concepts of bullying and discrimination. I knew I had to do something, and I decided to start with a protest.
I contacted my documentary filmmaker friend Darryl Roberts to help me plan the demonstration. With his help and help from a local eating disorder organization, we were able to get a group of about 35 teens and their mothers to protest in front of the Chicago Abercrombie & Fitch store. We got a lot of news coverage (even “Good Morning America”!), and it felt like such a success because of all of the awareness that was raised by it.
At first, there was no response from Abercrombie & Fitch, so we planned another protest, this time at their corporate headquarters. In order to get us to call off the second protest, Mike Jeffries issued an apology and Abercrombie executives asked me to meet with them to discuss their relationship with teens. I went to the corporate headquarters of Abercrombie & Fitch in Ohio with my parents, Darryl and a couple of eating disorder professionals.
I was given the opportunity to address several of the very high-up executives, and even met Mike Jeffries (who actually fist bumped me, and really seemed impressed that I was able to get his attention), and we came up with the “Are You an Ally” anti-bullying campaign, in which they would send me to 20 high schools across the country to share the message of respect for diversity through inclusion, and how to become an ally in the fight against bullying. I was impressed with how receptive they were to our concerns, and how willing they were to make a commitment to take action against bullying and discrimination and support diversity and inclusion.
It has been such a positive experience working with Abercrombie and Darryl preparing for the “Are You an Ally” campaign. To prepare for the symposium, I’ve been working with Dr. Joel Haber, the lead consultant for the documentary film Bully, along with Patrick Trapp. Together we put together a fifty-minute presentation aimed at high school freshmen.
It is my goal to help young people everywhere finally feel safe, and not feel alienated and hated for being different. I’ve had two very positive experiences so far with my first two symposiums (in New York and Washington, DC), and am really looking forward to getting this message out to many more high schools in the next two months.
For my first symposium, in New York, we kicked it off with a group of 300 students, and had the current Miss America, Nina Davuluri, as a special guest. Her recent experience with being harassed and cyber bullied because of her Indian ancestry helped give important insight into the different ways that people are bullied. Anybody, from the shy little boy reading a book in the corner to Miss America can be a victim, and things have to change.
The second symposium that I led in Washington D.C. was a little more intimate with 130 students, and I think this really helped make this a more personal and meaningful experience for all of us. One girl in particular stands out. She approached me, and whispered in my ear that she wanted to show me something. Then she lifted her shirtsleeve to show the words, “I’m worthless” written on her arm. I asked her if she wrote it, and the girl said that she did, and it was to remind herself that she wasn’t important, and would never be. I knew that if I could help this girl understand how important she really, truly is, than I would have achieved my goal.
Toward the end of my presentation, I decided to do something that was maybe not technically school-approved, but I felt the need to do it anyways. I had everyone lift up their shirtsleeves, and told them to write on the people they knew, everything that was great about them. Seeing so many positive messages written where everyone could see them was so amazing! I will never forget that moment as long as I live, and I can’t wait to share moments like these with more students across the US. I am so grateful to be a part of this movement, and encourage everyone to become and ally, and do anything in your power to help stop people from feeling worthless, being bullied, and hurting themselves and others. Anyone can be a part of the problem, but with a little effort everyone can choose to be a part of the solution instead!
Cali Linstrom is a high school student from Chicago, IL who is currently promoting her “Are You an Ally” anti-bullying campaign at high schools across America.